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Are You Perceptive?

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

During my second year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, two students persistently acted out in their 10th-grade classes. One student, H, had a difficult time sitting still and staying focused, and he could turn on teachers in an instant if called out for misbehavior. He could be charming in one-on-one interactions but got into almost weekly confrontations with authority figures in the building, once even making a sexually lewd comment to a female teacher. The other student, V, had a physical disability that made him stand out to other kids. Perhaps to distract attention from this, V acted outrageously. He cracked constant jokes and roamed the classroom, rarely doing any schoolwork. My grade-level team tried many strategies to better engage these two students, but nobody (administration included) seemed able to reach either one of them.

In December, I was observing a 10th-grade English class in my role as grade team leader when I saw H standing at the door of the classroom. It wasn’t unusual for our students to leave in the middle of a class or show up in a classroom where they did not belong. The school did not have clear procedures to address this type of behavior.

The English teacher, Mr. J, was a first-year teacher who, though lacking experience, planned his lessons with great diligence. During my observation, his students were writing mystery stories. Mr. J was assisting the students as they worked in groups, so did not react immediately to the presence of H at the doorway.

H was motioning to his friend, Q, to come to the hallway. Seeing this, I told Q to stay put. H then walked into the room and whispered something in Q’s ear. At this point, the English teacher told H to go back to his own class. Instead, H resumed his post at the doorway. When Q started to get up, the teacher informed him that leaving the classroom would result in a referral. I also told him to stay in the classroom. “Guess I’m gonna have to take one for the team,” said Q as he defied our warnings and left the room with his backpack and coat. He did not return to English class and we later learned he had left the building.

Q was generally well behaved, so his open defiance struck me as peculiar. But again, students left in the middle of a class all too often, so I was not particularly alarmed and neither was the English teacher, who continued with his lesson. Later that day, I mentioned the incident to the principal, who concurred that it was strange, but did not say much about it at the time.

A couple of days later, on the Friday before winter break, Mr. J and I were called into the principal’s office. In our meeting, the principal told us that V had brought a gun to school on the day of Q’s strange behavior. Supposedly, the gun had passed hands from V to H to Q, and Q had it in his backpack during English class. When Q left the class with H, it was to take the gun out of the school. I do not know the principal’s source for this information, or if anyone ever actually saw the purported gun.

Having informed us of the situation, the principal proceeded to tell us that if anything bad had happened, it would have been our “names in the papers.” He suggested that, as young teachers, we needed to develop an ability to perceive when something was wrong in our classrooms. He further implied that if we’d had stronger relationships with the students in question, we could have kept Q in the classroom. When Mr. J pressed about what procedure to follow in the future if a student walked out of the classroom, he was told to notify the dean.

Q and H both received suspensions from the district superintendent of a half-year. Ironically, V, who allegedly brought the gun in the first place, got a more lenient suspension of one month. I don’t know what happened at the suspension hearings, but I heard that V’s parents actively defended their child from the allegations.

The incident raised some troubling questions. How can a teacher know what lies behind student behavior? Is perceptiveness indeed something that can be learned? What should teachers do if they suspect a student has a weapon? If administrators know that a weapon is in the building, should teachers be notified? If so, what steps should we then take to protect our students and ourselves? (Our school had no clear lockdown procedures at the time of this incident). And most troubling of all: what would a 15-year-old be doing with a gun and why would he bring it into school?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.